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The Underground Girls of Kabul: In Search of a Hidden Resistance in Afghanistan Hardcover – Deckle Edge, September 16, 2014

4.6 out of 5 stars 229 customer reviews

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Editorial Reviews

From School Library Journal

The girls portrayed in this book are not resisting with weapons or spying: they are simply living their lives as boys. The reasons are varied. The family needs help in a store. Women need a "male" relative to walk them on errands. Many girls call their status as a "boy" a type of magic—by showing that the family is ready for a boy, a real male child may arrive. Often, members of the community know the child is really a girl, but accept this gender switch and go along with the ruse. Nordberg focuses her narrative on the adult Azita. Her father educated her, but once she reached her prime childbearing years, she was married off to a rural, illiterate cousin. Somehow, Azita manages to win a government seat in her new district. Western readers will root for Azita to find a way out of this fiercely patriarchal arrangement, but Nordberg is astounding in her ability to elicit sympathy and rage for the women portrayed, while also attempting to explain why more elaborate female resistance may not yet be possible. Teenagers will find a great deal to think about in this well-researched and readable piece of reporting.—Jamie Watson, Baltimore County Public Library, MD


Winner of the 2015 J. Anthony Lukas Book Prize

A Salon 2014 Authors' Favorite Book

One of Buzzfeed's Best Nonfiction Books of 2014

A Business Insider Best Book of 2014

A Columbus Dispatch Best Book of 2014

A Publishers Weekly Best Book of 2014

A PopMatters Best Book of 2014

An FP Interrupted Best Book of 2014

An IPI Global Observatory Recommended Book for 2015

A TruthDig Book of the Year, 2014

Finalist for the Goodreads Choice Award, Nonfiction

“Through extensive interviews with former bacha posh, observation of present ones and conversations with doctors and teachers, Nordberg unearths details of a dynamic that one suspects will be news to the armies of aid workers and gender experts in post-invasion Afghanistan.”–New York Times Book Review

“Jenny Nordberg has produced a striking and nuanced work that explores the current status of Afghan women through one of their subcultures...[A] finely written book.”–Washington Post

“Five years of intensive reporting have yielded this gritty, poignant, and provocative collage of intimate portraits…Nordberg conveys captivating nuance and complexity; just when you feel some kind of judgment or conclusive opinion is within reach, she deftly turns the tables, leaving us to reexamine our own prejudices and societal norms as we struggle with questions that are perhaps unanswerable.”–Elle

“Nordberg’s immersive reporting reveals an astonishingly clear picture of this resourceful, if imperfect, solution to the problem of girlhood in a society where women have few rights and overwhelming restrictions.”–The Boston Globe

“Nordberg’s book is riveting, bringing a practice previously unknown to the West to light, and continuing to elucidate the plight of Afghan women, whose supposed inferiority is so ingrained in their culture that Western feminism can make few inroads.”–Minneapolis Star Tribune

“Nordberg's intimate exploration leaves us rooting for her brave subjects.”–Mother Jones

“Nordberg creates a moving intimacy with these stories, weaving them into the bigger picture of contemporary Afghanistan. Diving deep into the lives and hearts of people who are usually ignored, she reveals the enormity of a localized struggle even while grounding it in broader human experience, never allowing the reader to reduce her subjects to curiosities.”–DallasMorningNews.com

“In clear, simple prose, Nordberg describes her encounters with several current or former bacha posh, including a nurse who kept the role until a month before her wedding, a tae kwon do instructor who now guides younger “underground girls,” and an adolescent still resisting being turned into a woman… The book raises provocative questions about gender roles in Afghanistan and beyond.”–The Columbus Dispatch

“Fascinating… Nordberg manages to capture the strength of these women, as well as their vulnerabilities, to show the psychological toll bacha posh has on those who endure it, and the ability of women to adapt to the constricts society places on them.” –ForeignPolicy.com

“In fluid narrative style, Nordberg explores the [bacha posh] phenomenon through compelling individual portraits… In addition to presenting a rare glimpse of Afghan life, The Underground Girls of Kabul explores the ways that gender identity is shaped and policed. Extending well beyond Afghanistan, this book compels the reader to rethink gender differences.”—Straight.com
“The Underground Girls of Kabul is an outstanding work of journalism that uncovers new information about an important subject. It’s also an extraordinarily well-written book, full of riveting stories about the real lives of girls and women in Afghanistan today.” PopMatters.com

“Five years of research, and an almost novelistic approach to her findings, has produced a book full of fresh stories.” —Razia Iqbal, Independent 

“Nordberg's hopeful yet heart-breaking account offers a dazzling picture of Afghan life . . . She is refreshingly non-judgmental . . . Thanks to this book, a little more light has been shone on a country and society so often misunderstood” —Independent on Sunday
“Partly a reflection on the politics of sex and gender . . . but it is also a tale of discovery.” —Sunday Telegraph
“This fascinating study sheds new light on what it's like to be female in the country declared the worst in the world to be a woman . . . This powerful account of powerlessness resonates with the most silenced voices in society.” —The Observer

“[A] searing exposé…Nordberg's subtle, sympathetic reportage makes this one of the most convincing portraits of Afghan culture in print.” –Publishers Weekly [starred]

“A stunning book… Nordberg has done some staggering work in this unique, important, and compelling chronicle. Book clubs will be riveted, and will talk for hours.” –Booklist [starred]

“As affecting as the stories of these women are, Nordberg’s conclusion—that women’s rights are essential to ‘building peaceful civilizations’—is the most powerful message of this compelling book. An intelligent and timely exploration into contemporary Afghanistan.” – Kirkus Reviews

“The Underground Girls of Kabul is a groundbreaking feat of reportage, a kaleidoscopic investigation into gender, resistance, and the limits of cross-cultural understanding. Jenny Nordberg is a riveting storyteller and she has an astonishing tale to tell.” –Michelle Goldberg, author of The Means of Reproduction: Sex, Power, and the Future of the World

“Jenny Nordberg has given us a fascinating look into a hidden phenomenon of extreme patriarchal societies: a form of gender-bending far riskier and more rewarding than Western academia's trendy, abstract gender categories. Nordberg's reporting is thorough and sensitive, her writing vivid and insightful. You will not forget this book; it will haunt you.” – Robin Morgan

The Underground Girls of Kabul is a brilliant, urgent, groundbreaking work. It is a call to action, and a reminder that even under the greatest abuses of power women have found ways to fight and flourish. The inspiring story of the bacha posh is not just a tale of ingenuity and survival in Afghanistan. It is an excavation of the deep and insidious roots of global misogyny, and an offering of hope.” —Cara Hoffman, author of Be Safe I Love You

The Underground Girls of Kabul draws back the curtain on the world of bacha posh, young Afghan girls whose families disguise them as boys and raise them, until adolescence intervenes, as sons. Jenny Nordberg's book is a tremendous feat of reporting and storytelling: until her work on the custom of bacha posh was published in the New York Times, the practice had never been systematically documented, and her narrative is so finely-observed that it often reads like fiction. Nordberg's curiosity, her humor, and her genuine warmth for her subjects come through on every page.” – Katherine Zoepf, fellow, the New America Foundation

The Underground Girls of Kabul is a riveting, firsthand account of what life as a girl is like in Afghanistan and how it often means becoming a boy.  Jenny Nordberg has written a compelling and important work that exposes the profound gender prejudice that exists, in different forms, all over the world.” –Jennifer Clement, author of Prayers for the Stolen

“Forget everything you thought you knew about gender and what it means to be a woman or man. Jenny Nordberg’s exquisitely reported look at why Afghans choose to raise their girls as boys is nothing less than heartbreaking, mind-bending, and mesmerizing—not to mention timely.”—Lauren Wolfe, director of Women’s Media Center’s Women Under Siege

“Nordberg brings to light a world that no Afghan speaks of, but everyone knows: the world of girls raised as boys, usually until puberty.  In a society where being a girl means living as chattel, and where families without boys are shamed, the bacha posh tradition arose, as it has in other highly patriarchal societies.  Going deeper, Nordberg discovers that the bacha posh, once adults, become a subversive force: having tasted freedom and opportunity, these women can never go back.  They stand up--for themselves, their daughters, and their country.  The former bacha posh may yet change Afghanistan for the better . . . Nordberg’s book is a pioneering effort to understand this hidden world.” –Valerie M. Hudson, professor and George H.W. Bush Chair, The Bush School of Government and Public Service, Texas A&M University
“The investigation into bacha posh gives a new and unique perspective on the women’s situation, gender and resistance in Afghanistan. The author tells the story with empathy and respect for the women who have let her into their lives. This book will interest both those who want to learn about Afghanistan and those wanting to understand how gender works, and it is a must-read for both Afghanistan and gender specialists.” –Sari Kouvo, co-director of the Afghanistan Analysts Network

The Underground Girls of Kabul is an amazing book. The fact that Nordberg brings this to light is eye-opening to everyone—even to Afghans. It is the truth that many Afghans live with it as part of their life.”–Naheed Bahram, program director of Women for Afghan Women

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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 368 pages
  • Publisher: Crown; 1St Edition edition (September 16, 2014)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0307952495
  • ISBN-13: 978-0307952493
  • Product Dimensions: 6.5 x 1.2 x 9.5 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.4 pounds (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.6 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (229 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #95,175 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

By Sharon Beverly TOP 1000 REVIEWERVINE VOICE on August 22, 2014
Format: Hardcover Vine Customer Review of Free Product ( What's this? )
There is a poignant universality to this book. Every culture deals with its values, customs, and norms in its own way. In the West, we have come to accept (albeit not in all religious practices) people living as a different gender from that which they were born. We categorize them with a variety of labels: gay, lesbian, homosexual, cross-dresser, transsexual, metrosexual, etc. The decision to live this way is made by the person when s/he is old enough to determine it for her/himself.

Imagine then, an entire society (viewed by the West as extremely conservative and primitive) that permits and encourages girls to be raised as boys—only until puberty. This is the cultural secret that Award-winning Swedish author Jenny Nordberg reveals. The book is the result of her documentary and five years’ worth of research and reporting.

Nordberg explains how Afghan culture’s roots stem from Zoroastrianism and a patriarchal society. Girls here are commodities to be sold and bartered. The higher the family’s reputation, the greater the value placed upon the female and her bride price (paid to the father by the groom’s family). Should anything happen to tarnish her (and her family’s) reputation, her value plummets. Keeping their ‘gold’ protected and virtually under lock and key is how the society operates.

Nordberg discusses patriarchy in other countries, but focuses on Afghanistan and how it deals with the differences of sex and gender, freedom and privilege, and captivity and slavery. She has divided her book into four distinct parts: Boys; Youth; Men, Mothers; and Fathers.

In a society where only males have rights, it is easy to understand why girls embrace being raised as boys.
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Format: Hardcover Vine Customer Review of Free Product ( What's this? )
"The Underground Girls of Kabul: In Search of a Hidden Resistance in Afghanistan" by Jenny Nordberg takes us into a world where women are undervalued. This undervaluing of the female sex causes families who so badly want boys born to them will take one of their daughters, dress her up as a boy, an raise her as a boy to, according to folklore, enhance the chances they will conceive a boy. As these girls being raised as boy reach puberty they are transformed back into females then sold off as a wife. Once these females abruptly put back into the role as female they discover themselves in a confusing world where there is little regard for her and is often subject to abuse by her husband. There are women so anxious to escape a life of little value that live their lives disguised as men. It's a life that leaves deep psychological scars and gender identity confusion.

This is a fascinating, hard to imagine book which examines women, their lives, and social view of them in the modern Afghanistan of today. The women of Afghanistan live a life so far removed from the life of Western women it's difficult to wrap you head around it.

An important read for anyone who has concern for the mistreatment and devaluation of women in the world today.
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I don’t know whether to be sad or angry by the information in this book. The author follows amongst others, a highly educated female doctor, who dresses her youngest daughter like a boy so their family can avoid the stigma of not having a son. The young girl is allowed to have all privileges that boys have, such as playing with abandon, speaking loudly and looking others in the eye. She is treated by her parents as the special son they never had. And, apparently, this is not an isolated case as this happens all over Afghanistan. Not only are girls treated worse than animals in the Afghani culture, but any woman who does not provide her husband with a son is beaten and ridiculed. These women loathe themselves and become depressed when they give birth to girls.

Families without a son are harassed. Men make their wives feel ashamed because they have not given him a son. Therefore, in order for family not to be put out by having only daughters, many will raise a daughter, sometimes from birth, as their son. Doctors will announce that a family with many daughters has given birth to a son, when in fact she is a daughter.

The oddest thing is that most people in the community and school know that it’s a girl just dressed like a boy, but everyone goes along with it. The worst part is that when a girl reaches puberty she must then become a girl again. Ending her life of freedom of movement and speech and the privileges she once had when pretending to be a boy. Some girls can’t wait to be able to just be a girl again. Some girls want to continue being a boy because they say they feel more like a boy than a girl.

The author delves into the psychological ramifications of gender confusion of girls who don’t change back until after the on-set of puberty.
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By Sadie Forsythe on November 26, 2014
Format: Kindle Edition
I can read a 300 page novel in a day but it took me a really long time to read this book, I mean months. The reason is that I could only take it in small doses. It's dry. It's depressing and its content takes digesting.

I'm really interested in the lives of woman in Afghanistan (or any culture so far removed from my own). My first degree was in anthropology and the reason was that the way people live fascinates me. This isn't the first time I've tried to get a handle on the Afghani culture and I'll give this book credit for trying to be more well-rounded than most.

And I think Nordberg managed it up to about 40% through. Up to that point I was loving that she took a lot of time to place some of the practices that just make no sense by Western standards within a historical, political and religious context so that, while they still feel wrong, wrong, wrong, the reader is able to understand how the practice developed and at one point made some sort of sense.

And this was part of why I could only take small doses of the book. When I've read plainly inflammatory texts (some of which I can barely deem better than anti-Afghanistan war propaganda) it's easy to dismiss a lot of the bad stuff as over exaggerated or tell yourself they just left the good stuff out. But when it's presented as balanced and therefore believable it's hard to face in bulk. And lets be clear, life in Afghanistan for women is horrendous.

The main problem I had was that this is presented as a piece of nonfiction, as research. And certainly, Nordberg did a lot of fieldwork, conducted a lot of interviews and observed a lot of Afghani daily life. But this is not a piece of straight research.

At best, I might call it a well structured, well padded field journal.
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